Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Edible Weeds - Garlic Mustard and Sauce Alone

Here we are in our second week of COVID-19 lockdown. The only reason we go out is to exercise. Or forage! (Read essential state guidelines regarding safe and reponsible living here.)

For anyone longing to get out of the house for a solitary, socially distanced treasure-hunt, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one of the earliest edible spring edibles to appear on still-brown forest floors and along their sunlit edges. These delicious greens are very tempting: the leafy vegetable tastes like a very mild broccoli rabe after blanching, and is peppery and garlicky when raw. It costs nothing, is versatile in the kitchen, and collecting it immerses us in nature at a time when the changing season seems like the only normal thing in our lives.

So what is this edible weed? Garlic mustard is highly invasive in the States -place it at the top of your invasivore spring menu. It is prolific where it grows wild - so your conscience can remain clear when uprooting it. It is a biennial plant, meaning it lives for two years. What we see in spring are its two forms: the leafy, second-year rosettes that germinated from seeds last spring, and a mass of newly-emerged seedlings (dispersed last summer), like a green carpet growing on the still-brown forest floor. Here in the Northeast, both forms appear around early March.

When the weather is still frosty at night the leaves on the rosettes are small, dark blue-green, and quite tough. But as the days lengthen garlic mustard becomes fatter and taller and the emerging leaves become bright emerald and tender.

Under the ground is a hidden treat, if you are willing to scrub and trim it at home: the contorted fat roots are as hot as horse radish (see Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine for that relish).

By mid-spring garlic mustard is bushy and lush. Its tender flower stalks in April are perhaps the best part of all, juicy and snappable when young, and resembling broccoli florets in miniature.

The flowers are of course edible, too. Pretty, peppery treats.

Those flowers are a hidden menace, Stateside, because they are the precursor to the plants setting seeds. Thousands and thousands of seed. Once dispersed they lie in wait for a year to emerge as that edible mat of microgreens – wonderful for foragers but terrible for biodiversity. This invasive plant is a thug that crowds out native flora. Harvesting this edible weed is an act of environmental kindness. Collect and preserve poundsful at a time with impunity.

One of the most evocative English common names given to garlic mustard is sauce alone. While I have made and eaten dozens of dishes featuring this plant (it hogs its own chapter in Forage, Harvest, Feast), I had never really thought about that. Until now. Perhaps COVID-19 made me re-focus on the basics – we need simple things. And we feel we must provide for ourselves.

So this vibrant bowlful is my idea of what ravenous hedgerow mice would cook for their spring dinner. If mice cooked. I think they’d like it with a cheesy sauce, so I have included that in the method, too.

The basic, cooked greens (above) are good enough to eat as a delicious side, a topping for pizzas, or filling for savory tarts and phyllo. The substantial Spring Green Purée that follows is a perfect bed for eggs. Or swirled into dashi or a miso broth. Or a stew of chickpeas or beans (you have those, right!?). Make it the basis of a minestrone with farro or pasta and canned tomatoes.

Sauce Alone uses just 1 cup of that purée. The rest I cool then freeze in a ziplock bag, pressed flat - very stackable and space-saving in the freezer (what, you don't have pine pollen in your freezer? Go out and get some! Ripening now).

At the cheese-sauce stage, top it with poached eggs, or add it to mashed potatoes and cauliflower for comforting bowlfuls.

For my allium elements (leeks, field garlic) – substitute any onion you have around: onion-onions, shallot, wild garlic, chives, ramp leaves, or scallions.

Sauce Alone - Serves 4

Spring Green Purée

3 tablespoons butter (or oil if you go vegan for the basic purée)
Leaves from 2 large leeks (about 4 cups), well washed and roughly chopped
2 ¼ lbs* garlic mustard leaves and stalks (about 10 – 12 plants), washed
¼ cup finely snipped field garlic

*The cooked yield should be 10 oz, squeezed dry

Basic Cheese Sauce

This is a thick sauce, for a runnier version add another ¼ cup milk.

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
2/3 cup grated cheddar (or whatever)

For the Purée: In a pot warm the 3 tablespoons of butter or oil over medium-low heat. Add the chopped leek tops. Cover, and cook gently until the leeks are very soft – about 15 minutes (stir occasionally).

While the leeks are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the garlic mustard. Cover, and when the water boils again cook uncovered for 2 minutes, pushing the green mass down every now and then. Drain the boiling water and refresh the greens in a bowl of cold water. Squeeze it as dry as possible. Then, using your fingers, tease the compressed greens apart to loosen the mass.

Increase the leek pot's heat to medium and add the field garlic and blanched garlic mustard. Stir well and season to taste with salt. Cook for a couple of minutes.

Transfer the cooked greens to a food processor and whizz until very smooth. This (above) is now the thick, hearty purée base for a hundred digressions.

For the Cheese Sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour until thoroughly blended. Allow this roux to bubble - without browning - for a minute. Slowly drizzle in the milk, stirring very well as the mixture suddenly seizes up and thickens. Once all the milk is incorporated cook the milky mixture, stirring, until it thickens evenly. Add the cheese and stir until it has melted. Taste, and season with salt and pepper. Now stir in 1.5 cups of the reserved Green Purée. Warm through.

To serve, dollop into bowls and top with pat of butter.



  1. Wow, you make everything you forage look so delicious!! I wish I had you here to walk the woods with me and show me what's what...I'm always afraid I'm going to pick the wrong thing and poison myself!

    1. Thank you, Deb! You already know plants, as a gardener, so ID will be easier for you! Poisoning yourself is quite difficult. If you are genuinely curious, learn new plants, one by one. You probably have garlic mustard, somewhere. If you're on Facebook, join a plant identification group to help ID, or buy a field guide, or my book :-) There are lots of resources.


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